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A look at Sarasota Orchestra's history as it celebrates 75 years

An image of the Florida West Coast Symphony with its Music Director, Alexander Bloch
Audrey Dunne
An image of the Florida West Coast Symphony with its Music Director, Alexander Bloch

The Sarasota Orchestra is growing as it focuses on how to serve the community in the decades to come.

The Sarasota Orchestra is celebrating its 75th anniversary on March 12.

Its first performance under its original name, The Florida West Coast Symphony, was at Sarasota Municipal Auditorium on March 12, 1949.

It’s the longest continuously operating orchestra in Florida. And has had six music directors: Lyman Wiltse, Alexander Bloch, Paul Wolfe, Leif Bjaland, Anu Tali, and Bramwell Tovey, who died unexpectedly of cancer within a year of taking the position.

Now it's actively searching for its seventh music director.

Sarasota Orchestra President and CEO Joe McKenna said community members founded the orchestra.

Sarasota Orchestra is shown performing at Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.
Daniel Perales Studio
Sarasota Orchestra is shown performing at Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.

“It really started from very humble beginnings, where a number of locals came together to pursue the interest in music," McKenna said. "It was not a professional ensemble; it was made up of amateurs and students. But the grounding quality was this passion for and desire to participate in an ensemble, which was the Florida West Coast Symphony.”

While many people played a part in the orchestra’s history and growth, McKenna said one person stands out.

“I think the probably the foremost person in our overall history was Paul Wolfe, who played a major role as the music director here at the orchestra for several decades," McKenna said. "He represented this period after the initial beginning in 1949, and several early music directors that had short tenures. Paul Wolfe was really the one that galvanized a vision and community support for the Florida West Coast symphony."

McKenna said Wolfe’s era was marked by his commitment to the orchestra’s musicians and his dedication and passion for education.

Paul Wolfe (far right, facing) coaches SMF students in 1966
Courtesy of The Sarasota Orchestra.
Paul Wolfe (far right, facing) coaches SMF students in 1966

Wolfe served as music director of the orchestra from 1961 until the late 1990s.

One facet of the Sarasota Orchestra’s musical mission is its sponsorship of Sarasota Music Festival, for which musicians from top college music programs conservatories audition and, once accepted, attend for free.

Wolfe co-founded the Sarasota Music Festival in 1965.

The Florida West Coast Symphony became a completely paid professional orchestra by the 1990s.

Sarasota Orchestra CEO Joe McKenna
Alex Stafford
Sarasota Orchestra CEO Joe McKenna

McKenna has been the president and CEO of the orchestra since 2001.

“We've been here to celebrate good times, we've been here to support our community during challenging hours, like the post 9/11 period. And the hurricanes of the last several years in which we presented a benefit concert,” McKenna said.

That concert was co-hosted by The Van Wezel and benefited community members and arts organizations like Venice Theatre and The Hermitage, that were hit hard by Hurricane Ian in 2022. Gate revenues went to the Suncoast Disaster Recovery Fund of The Community Foundation of Sarasota County to help victims in Charlotte, DeSoto, Sarasota and Manatee counties.

McKenna said the organization's name change came in the 2008-09 season as the orchestra was looking for ways to better serve the community. He said Florida West Coast Symphony didn’t tie the orchestra to a geographic location. And “orchestra” seemed more accessible than “symphony.”

The Sarasota Orchestra is expanding its reach and service by building a new home for music-making and education on Fruitville Road.

“We have engaged the acoustical and theater planning firm stages, so they will serve as our acoustician and theater planner for the project," McKenna said. "We're working on about six or seven different levels. This is a transformative project, both as a cultural center and a music center. But it's also a big economic engine and a big social project for our region.”

McKenna said the new music director will be a "spiritual leader" in moving planning ahead for the new music center.

In McKenna's words, "While this is our 75th season, it's actually the beginning of what's going to be the next 75 years of excellence and service."

There's more information about The Sarasota Orchestra's 75th anniversary season here.

Four of the founding members of The Florida West Coast Symphony, now The Sarasota Orchestra.
Courtesy of The Sarasota Orchestra
Dr. W.D. Sugg, George Gibbs, Ruth Cotton Butler and Sam Hill (L to R) - four of seven founding members of Florida West Coast Symphony, c. 1974

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